Changed in the Blink of an Eye II: Focus on Near Death Experiences
By Anyang Anyang
August 11th, 2015
On a sunny yet breezy Friday I walked into my favorite bookstore, to pick up a sequel to a series I was reading at the time. I briefly glanced at the “sales” section of the store and the book Near Death Experiences: The Rest of the Story by P.M.H Atwater caught my attention. Out of curiosity I started to browse through the book and was intrigued by the similarities these experiences shared with other types of profound spiritual transformations. I had previous superficial knowledge of near death experiences (NDEs) but was never particularly interested having somehow passively cultivated the prevailing skeptical assumption that NDEs were the product of a dying brain (Kelly et al., 2007). Although quite a few of the claims made by Atwater were rather “out there”, I was interested in seeing what more verifiable scientific studies had to say about the matter. I also kept reading the book and it seemed the moment I became interested in the subject matter, I started to see the topic popping up everywhere in my life; from random strangers bringing up in conversation, to TV shows, and dreams, I felt compelled to take a deeper look at the subject. Like the proverbial rabbit hole, the topic of NDEs led to even more fascinating issues than I could have anticipated. This personal sense of synchronicity and the resulting exploration was the inspiration for this blog series.
In the previous post we had a look at several generic examples of transformations of consciousness. This post will be focused exclusively on the near death phenomenon.
First of all. What exactly is a Near Death Experience? The International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) defines an NDE as “a profound psychological event that may occur to a person close to death or who is not near death but in a situation of physical or emotional crisis.” A more dated definition by the same organization is “an intense awareness, sense, or experience of otherworldiness, whether pleasant or unpleasant, that happens to people who are at the edge of death.” This is a spectrum including people who actually clinically die, in other words, lose some or all vital signs, and people who encounter death, like in a rock climbing accident for example, but come out of the experience physically unharmed. Due to advances in medicine and healthcare, more people being resuscitated and as many as 10-20% of people who were clinically dead report having had a near death experience while in that state (Greyson, 1998). Studies indicate that about 4.2% of the American public, 13 million people, have reported an NDE. This demographic is greater than the number of Jewish people, Muslims and Mormons in America combined (Schwartz, 2015). The mere size of the population of experiencers is an indicator of the relevance of the issue.
The term Near Death Experience was coined and popularized by Raymond Moody in his 1975 bestseller Life After Death. His was the first study of such experiences to reach a wide audience but NDEs have been recorded in different cultures since antiquity. The earliest known record appears in Plato’s The Republic as “the myth of Er”. It is the account of a warrior named Er who was presumed dead on the battlefield but woke up on his funeral pyre. He gave a detailed account of his experiences on the other side. Details such as judgment by the three fates, reincarnation and so on, that interestingly enough reflected the prevailing beliefs and cosmology of that particular culture. From a Biblical perspective, Reverend John Price, author of Revealing Heaven: The Christian Case for Near-Death Experiences believes the apostle Paul’s tale in 2 Corinthians 2 of a man being taken to the third heaven is a description of a near death experience. The account certainly displays some elements associated with NDEs, elements we will be examining below.
According to the IANDS website, some frequently occurring features of NDE cases are;
- Intense emotions: commonly of profound peace, well-being, love; others marked by fear, horror, loss
- A perception of seeing one’s body from above (called an out-of-body experience, or OBE), sometimes watching medical resuscitation efforts or moving instantaneously to other places
- Rapid movement through darkness, often toward an indescribable light
- A sense of being “somewhere else,” in a landscape that may seem like a spiritual realm or world
- Incredibly rapid, sharp thinking and observations
- Encounter with deceased loved ones, possibly sacred figures (the Judges, Jesus, a saint) or unrecognized beings, with whom communication is mind-to-mind; these figures may seem consoling, loving, or terrifying
- A life review, reliving actions and feeling their emotional impact on others
- In some cases, a flood of knowledge about life and the nature of the universe
- Sometimes a decision to return to the body
The experiences themselves vary in complexity. There is no recorded case that contains all the features and no single feature that appears in every case (Greyson, 2012). Some cases may contain two or three elements while others may have more than five features. No two cases are alike. On one hand, there are long detailed cases involving life reviews and reunions with deceased loved ones, and on the other hand there are vague experiences involving light, darkness or sensation (Atwater, 2011). All, however, have that distinct sense of otherworldiness quoted above with experiencers emphasizing how lucid, real and non-dreamlike the experience felt. There are also some common patterns. For example, children do not report a life review, which seems intuitive given their relatively little life experience. Furthermore, NDEs generally have positive transformative after effects on the experiencers. Experiencers usually have increased levels of empathy, greater desire to serve others, lessened fear of death and less interest in fame and fortune (Holden et al., 2014). The consistent pattern of positive personality after effects have led some to believe that a unifying feature of NDEs might be what some call, “spiritual intervention” (McLaughlin & Maloney, 1984). This means the near-death experience often radically alters the trajectory of their spiritual growth.
Pleasant experiences tend to reaffirm one’s already positive inclinations and strengthen their connection to others and the sacred while unpleasant experiences are usually interpreted as a wake up call and often lead to cessation of negative, harmful attitudes and behaviors. The life review feature, when it occurs, is a very powerful morality-altering experience. The experiencer usually gets a first hand, experiential understanding of the positive and negative effects of their actions on others throughout their lives, which creates a visceral appreciation of the Golden Rule (Lorimer, 1990). This usually affects the experiencers on a profoundly deep level. For example, there are cases like that of a Mafia hitman who experienced all the pain and grief he had ever caused others. Needless to say, after a life review experience he could not go back to his old ways (Atwater, 2011). Rev. Price claims life reviews are equivalent to 30 years of therapy in terms of the issues they resolve. That is a difficult claim to prove but all in all NDEs have shown the power to rehabilitate some of the most “hopeless” cases as illustrated by the case study below.
The rehabilitative power of NDEs can be seen in the case of a former prisoner in Brazil. The 45 year old subject reports getting involved in minor crime from preteen years and progressively getting into increasingly serious crimes. At nineteen he was convicted and sentenced to 44 years for four homicides. Three years later he was attacked out of revenge by a gang of other inmates and stabbed fourteen times. He ended up in surgery during which he had a near-death experience. The subject reports descending to hell and then being lifted back out by a divine hand. The hand continued to lift him up, above the operating room into the clouds. He glimpsed in the distance a gleaming golden city and felt a desire to go there. However, he was told that his work was not yet finished and then returned to his body. After the experience he was filled with remorse for his crimes and became involved in religion. He was granted conditional release after 25 years and is now settled with a family and a steady job. He is also a member of a Baptist church and reports no desire to return to crime (Braghetta et al., 2013). This is a dramatic example of a complete 180-degree change in moral behavior caused by an unpleasant NDE.
Some experiences completely alter the individual’s belief system radically. A particularly striking experience is that of George Rodonaia, a Russian scientist. An avowed atheist who believed strictly in consciousness as a product of the physical brain, his NDE changed his perspective completely, inspiring him to get a doctorate degree in the Psychology of Religion and become an ordained priest. He was kept in the morgue for three days and woke up during his autopsy. While seemingly dead, Rodonaia reports several out-of-body experiences. His wife at the time verifies his report of telepathically hearing her thinking of different potential new husbands while he was dead (Atwater, 2011)! These are only a few of the many striking features of his NDE which was powerful enough to force him to reconsider his perspective on reality.
Another example, from Revealing Heaven, of a radical change in an individual’s belief system is that of Robert, a former fundamentalist pastor. Before his NDE, Robert preached a religion of fear, centered on the theme of a vengeful wrathful God. His NDE left him compelled to focus on divine unconditional love. Robert’s congregation slowly dwindled after the experience because his church was not interested in the new nature of his message. Even so, he reports being unable to see Christianity through the fire and brimstone lens anymore much less preach it that way. Robert’s transformation from fundamentalist organized religion to a more personal connection with a loving God is a frequently occurring result of NDEs, with an overwhelming proportion of experiencers report encountering the feeling of indescribable love. Even distressing, unpleasant experiences are still associated with corrective love and not with vengeance. Experiencers often times place emphasis on the personal relationship with the divine and are less concerned with religious institutions even if they may use those avenues to fulfill their newfound desire to serve others.
Of course, some cases merely deepen the experiencer’s spiritual or religious beliefs and attitudes. In yet another synchronistic episode, a Pakistani lady at a workout class I attended struck up a conversation with me at random which eventually led to her describing her recent near death experience while whitewater rafting in the Spanish Alps. She was raised Muslim and actively observed the religious tenets, the NDE simply ignited a more passionate desire for connection to God. For her, the experience was God’s way of drawing her closer to him, she is now a member of a Sufi order, a mystical sect of Islam.
The reason NDEs are so controversial is because there still is no valid, widely accepted scientific theory that can explain them. Most explanatory models fall into two categories; psychological and physiological.
First, psychological explanatory models, which attempt to explain the near-death phenomenon solely through mental processes and patterns of behavior. Attempts to find personality traits that correlate with propensity for NDEs have proven unsuccessful – experiencers come from all walks of life with as diverse characteristics and traits as one would find in a random sample of the general population (Kelly et al., 2007). Another explanation, Expectation Theory, suggests NDEs are fabrications of the mind based on prior religio-cultural beliefs. There are two reasons why Expectation Theory fails to hold up. First, studies show that subjects’ prior religious orientations and degree of religiosity could not predict their chances of having an NDE. Instead, religious history only influenced their interpretations of the experience (Greyson, 2012). Secondly, children too young to have any knowledge of NDE cases have reported consistent features and elements, with the exception of the life review (Kelly et al., 2007), suggesting that social conditioning does not cause and is not correlated to NDEs.
Physiological causes have been pushed more vigorously. Theories range from levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the brain to neurochemical changes triggered by close brushes with death (real or perceived) and even to epileptic seizures. The fundamental problem with these theories is that none of the proposed mechanisms can account for the full experience or the after effects. For example low levels of oxygen in the brain creates a condition known as anoxia. While certain elements are similar, such as bright lights and a feeling of floating, the host of symptoms that show up are unrelated to NDEs. Also, the more complex elements of NDEs are absent and the visions in an anoxic condition may include living people but never deceased loved ones like in NDEs (Kelly et al., 2007). Anesthesia and electrical stimulation of the brain have both been attempted to duplicate near death experiences but while these create altered states, hey have failed create anything significantly similar enough to an NDE. Currently the scientific view is shifting away from single factor explanations to multilevel interpretations (Kelly et al., 2007).
The push to explain NDEs is due in part to the challenge they provide to basic assumptions of reality. The scientific materialist assumption that the physical brain constitutes all mental life seems questionable in light of NDEs. Countless studies contain experiencers reporting accurate perception of events while their brains had limited or zero cognitive functions (Kelly et al., 2007). Enhanced cognition without a properly working brain implies the possibility that consciousness can exist independently of the brain. This is an extremely bold claim in the face of mainstream science, however in the next few blog posts detailing other types of transformations of consciousness, this issue will keep popping up and we will look at alternative models of consciousness that might account for all the anomalous phenomena.
On the religious side of this phenomenon, NDEs are still not addressed as often as one would expect because they raise uncomfortable questions depending on the worldview of the particular religion contextualizing the experience. Christian theologians and pastors for example are conflicted about NDEs. Some find the all-inclusive nature of NDEs contrary to established doctrines of Christianity as the one true religion. The previously mentioned case of the former fundamentalist pastor is an example of the cognitive dissonance created by these experiences. The fact that so many people from different religions report similar experiences that only after the fact become framed with symbols and imagery from their particular religion challenges the exclusivist stance. This archetypal nature of NDEs seems to imply that there is a core universal truth underlying these experiences that transcends any one particular religion. One of the few proposed theories against near-death experiences by some Christian theologians are that they might be deceptions of the devil to which those theologians who accept NDEs argue that this view would imply Satan’s deception is more powerful than God’s grace (Greyson, 2012).
No matter the scientific or theological explanation for these experiences, the subjective positive effects of NDEs are the main focus of this series. Powerful changes in consciousness brought about by NDEs have been beneficial to many people, not just the experiencers. How can the phenomenon of NDEs be useful to us in the present? What implications do they have for living our lives? For one, it may be that the stories themselves, separate from the subjective experience, have the ability to impact those who hear them. Bruce Greyson (2012) discusses two studies where subjects who were exposed to stories of NDEs showed increased levels of empathy, spirituality and other measures. Simply discussing or contemplating this phenomenon has quite a transformative effect on people. This may be the reason some experiencers report feeling compelled to share their stories or “testimonies” when they return. Rev. Price, who is an Episcopalian minister incorporates NDE accounts into his sermons, reports that they help to alleviate the anxieties of the terminally ill when he counsels them, and they offer genuine comfort to the bereaved. Rev. Price’s fascinating interpretation of the famous Bible verse where “Jesus wept” at the death of Lazarus is that Christ wept not because Lazarus was dead, but because by resurrecting him he was pulling Lazarus out of paradise. Indeed, a marked symptom not often addressed in accounts of NDEs is the anger, frustration and rueful sadness individuals sometimes feel at having come back to this earthly realm after experiencing paradise (Atwater, 2011). The possibility of continuity of life, bliss, reunion with loved ones often makes the dying process seem like just another step in the human journey and not a final destination. Paradoxically, in spite of the bliss encountered in pleasant NDEs, individuals who have near death experiences as a result of suicide attempts rarely attempt suicide again after the NDE in contrast to the general population of suicide attempters (Greyson, 2012). This might be as a result of the sense of purpose that often follows the NDE. More urgently, the emphasis on unconditional love as the most salient lesson from these experiences has the most immediate relevance to our lives here and now. Even right now, as you finish reading this blog post you may find yourself in quite a different headspace than when you initially started.
Atwater, P.M.H. (2011). Near-death Experiences, the rest of the story: What they teach us about living, dying, and our true purpose. New York, NY: MJF Books.
Braghetta, Camilla C., Santana, Glícia P., Cordeiro, Quirino, Rigonatti, Sergio P., & Lucchetti, Giancarlo. (2013). Impact of a near-death experience and religious conversion on the mental health of a criminal: case report and literature review. Trends in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 35(1), 81-84. Retrieved August 06, 2015, from http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2237-60892013000100010&lng=en&tlng=en. 10.1590/S2237-60892013000100010.
Greyson, B. (1998). The incidence of near-death experiences. Medicine and Psychiatry, 1, 92-99.
Greyson, B. (2012). The psychology of near-death experiences and spirituality. In L.J. Miller (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of psychology and spirituality (pp. 514-527). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Holden, J. M., Kinsey, L., & Moore, T. R. (2014). Disclosing near-death experiences to professional healthcare providers and nonprofessionals. Spirituality in clinical practice, 1(4), 278-287.
Kelly, E. F., Kelly, E. W., Crabtree, A., Gauld, A., Grosso, M., & Greyson, B. (2007). Irreducible mind: Toward a psychology for the 21st century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Lorimer, D. (1990). Whole in one: The near-death experience and the ethic of interconnectedness. London: Arkana.
McLaughlin, S. A., & Maloney, H. N. (1984). Near-death experiences and religion: A further investigation. Journal of Religion and Health, 23, 149-159.
Price, J. W. (2013). Revealing Heaven: The Christian case for near-death experiences. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Schwartz, S. A. (2015). Six protocols, neuroscience, and near-death: An emerging paradigm incorporating nonlocal consciousness. Explore: The journal of science and healing, 11(4), 252-260.